Repentance and Reconciling with God
What does it mean to repent? Does it mean we suddenly become religious or decide to join a church? No. Or does it mean you vow to never sin again? Hardly. But then what is it? Is it a once and for all act? And is it essential to do before we have a relationship with God? Because repentance is such an important word in the Christian faith, we need to know the answers to these questions.
To answer them, we first need to look at repentance in the history of God’s people. There were many times when the Israelites fell into gross sin by forsaking God and turning to idolatry. God sent his prophets to call the people to repent of their sins and their rebellion against him. Typical of these prophets was Ezekiel. God charged him to confront Israel’s idolatry:
Therefore say to the people of Israel, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!” (Ezekiel 14:6)
After sending many prophets, God promised that he would send one more before the Messiah came:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
John the Baptist’s ministry: breaking up the ground
John the Baptist was the promised prophet of Elijah. He started his ministry in the early first century, at a very crucial time in Israel’s history. The nation was under the power of the Roman government, but they were on the verge of witnessing the coming of their own King, the Messiah. John’s message was one of repentance, and his baptism symbolized that.
… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ” (Luke 3:2-6)
John’s purpose was to prepare the people for the coming of Christ, the Messiah. The people were to prepare their hearts like a road for a visiting king was prepared: breaking up the earth and leveling it out into a smooth roadbed. And John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for forgiveness. Those who came to him for baptism showed they wanted to be reconciled to God.
Repentance the first step toward God
Each person that received John’s baptism was to relinquish their own personal sins. To common people John said: “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” To the tax collectors he said: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” And to the soldiers he said: “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-12)
Before Jesus arrived, John’s baptism of repentance was not meant to be an end in itself, as it was not the full gospel message. John’s followers understood that repentance was just the first step in being reconciled to God.
When Jesus came, John quickly confessed him as the Messiah, the Savior. After Jesus was baptized, John pointed his followers to Jesus. They eventually stopped following John and followed Jesus. John’s job was completed, because the Messiah, the source of salvation, had come. He humbly gave up his ministry and directed people toward faith in the Savior.
The teaching of Jesus
After Jesus began his ministry, John’s declined and Jesus became prominent. Like John, the Lord taught we must accept that we have sinned and are in need of God’s forgiveness. We should be like the tax collector in his parable:
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
And of course Jesus called people to faith in himself, the final condition to be reconciled with God. “Believe in me,” Trust in me,” and “Abide in me” were commands that permeated his teaching. Remarkably, Jesus’ conditions were the same as those taught by John: repentance and faith in the Messiah.
The repentance of the prodigal son
Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is a perfect demonstration of the meaning of repentance (Luke 15:11-32). It’s a touching and powerful story of a wayward son reconciling with his father. First, the son prematurely asks the father for his inheritance. He then wastes it by riotous living, and runs out of money. The son soon realizes his desperate state and humbly returns home to his father. While returning, he rehearses his confession:
“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.'” (Luke 15:18-19)
The elements of his repentance are: turning back, humility, and confession. Of course we know the rest of the story. Instead of condemning his son, the father welcomes him back with open arms and throws a party for him. The father and son are reconciled! This is just what our Heavenly Father does for us when we repent and turn back to him. In Luke, Jesus assures us there will be a party for those who turn to God:
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
The preaching of the Apostles
The preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus provided a template for preaching the gospel: repent, turn to God, and embrace the Messiah. The apostles used this template in their preaching. In Peter’s first sermon to those in Jerusalem, he proclaimed:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
It’s remarkable that all the components that were present in John the Baptist’s ministry after Jesus arrived are mentioned in Peter’s sermon: repentance, faith in Jesus, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul, in his sermon to the Athenians, declared:
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)
Now that the gospel had come, God now commanded everyone to forsake their idols and worship the true Creator God. In his farewell address to the Ephesians, Paul again recounted the main steps to be reconciled with God:
“I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21)
Evidence of repentance
The apostles also insisted that those who come to Christ should show proof of their repentance by their changed life. Paul, in defending his ministry before King Agrippa, declared:
“First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20)
So, What is Repentance?
From the preaching of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles we see the important components of true repentance:
- Acknowledging our sin before God. We confess that we have sinned against him and against others.
- Having godly sorrow for our sin. In humility and faith we turn to him for forgiveness.
- Reversing course in our relationship to God. We cease ignoring or rejecting the Creator and start seeking him, embracing him in a love-faith relationship. We renounce our defiance of God, realize our great need for him, and welcome him into our hearts. The goal of repentance is reconciliation with the Father, not self punishment.
- Taking concrete actions to turn away from evil. We take real and intentional steps in our lives to abandon the things that displease God and to continue on that course. This may involve making restitution for the wrongs we have done against others.
In some cases, repentance involves drastic action; described by Jesus as costly surgery:
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matt 5:29)
Of course, Jesus used this exaggeration to teach a spiritual lesson. But it’s not difficult to see how this can be applied in our day. Those who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, or sexual sin need to take drastic action in their repentance. To save themselves from being destroyed by their addiction, they may have to do radical surgery in their life. This might include: cutting themselves off from all previous friends (even moving to another location if necessary), giving up electronic devices that lead them into sin, joining an accountability group, or getting professional help.
Repentance from addictions
Getting professional help for a serious problem is not unspiritual, as long as the professional doesn’t lead you away from God. There are many compassionate and godly pastors and counselors who are trained and equipped to help people overcome life problems. Many are available through Christian churches or ministries.
If you have a serious addiction, then stop at nothing to get rid of it! Get help from someone you trust and don’t rest until you have been cleansed from your problem. God loves you and has a much better life prepared for you if you would accept it.
In this context, repentance does not mean that a person will always shed their desire for drugs or alcohol all at once and never be tempted again. It means they are taking decisive action and are on the road to recovery. We should always pray for God’s help to overcome our problems. God may sovereignly take these desires away in one day, but he also may not, and we shouldn’t demand that he does. Addictions exert strong power over people and don’t go away easily. Most recovering addicts travel the long and arduous road of daily abstinence, confession, discipline, and accountability.
Faith without repentance
There is a popular belief that people can come to faith in Christ without repentance or any conviction of sin. But this is not real Christianity—it’s a weak imitation. Of course, none of us are free from sin. And we do need to give new Christians time to make important changes in their lives. But repentance is not optional in coming to faith in Christ.
It’s a sad fact that many people who consider themselves Christian are not. They identify as Christians but their lives don’t reflect Christ in any way. Sometimes we excuse people for this, in hopes that after they are in the church for a while, God will change their life as time goes on. But we are doing them no favor by giving them the impression that they can continue down this road, because there is nothing of value at the end of it.
Is repentance a one-time act?
It’s clear that the apostles called for an initial act of repentance from those who entered the faith, and this was part of entering the community of believers. This “first repentance” was considered a sign that their faith was real. They rid themselves of idols, they gave up stealing, they stopped committing sexual sin, they made restitution for their crimes.
As a young man, my repentance was progressive. Before I was a believer, I realized taking mind altering drugs was not the right path to take so I gave them up. I then started seeking God through eastern religions and eastern-style meditation. Eventually I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian at age 18. I quickly gave up my devotion to eastern religions and destroyed any books or writings related to them. Also, I confessed to the thefts I committed at the local drugstore and gave back to them some money as restitution.
Some people have a radical conversion. But others experience a gradual realization of the truth and of God’s presence in their life. Whether radical or gradual, the believer in Christ is on a lifelong path of growth and maturity, what the Bible calls sanctification.
Once we have repented, does it mean that we can’t sin anymore? Absolutely not! It means we are now on a new path—God’s path—for the rest of our earthly lives. If believers fall back into sin, it doesn’t mean they have lost their salvation and relationship with God. As children of God, we are no longer on the “road to destruction” that unbelievers travel. But God will discipline us as a father disciplines his children, because he loves us.
Some people accused Paul of encouraging sin because he preached salvation by grace. His answer to this accusation is found in Romans chapter six:
We died to sin: how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:2)
… count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. (Romans 6: 11-12)
Large portions of the epistles are dedicated to admonishing followers of Christ to live lives that are pleasing to God. Repentance in the early church was not just a one-time act at the start of the Christian life. Believers were expected to continue their repentance throughout their walk with God. Does this mean we need to be completely free of sin to be a follower of Christ? Of course not! We will never be totally free of it in this life. But real faith is always accompanied by repentance: a changed heart demonstrated by a changed life.
If we love God, then we will seek to please him. But we may still have areas in our lives that are displeasing to God and sins that we have never given up. Scripture admonishes us to practice daily repentance from sin, meeting with God and turning away from those things that hinder our walk with him. And as we do, God’s Holy Spirit provides us power to overcome the evil that once ruled our lives.
Plowing up the fallow ground
If you feel you’ve strayed from God’s path and are in need of the heavenly Father’s care, consider the prophet Hosea’s message to Israel:
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)
If you realize your need for God’s forgiveness, then it’s time to plow up that hard ground in your heart, and return to the Lord in repentance. If you do, the Father will welcome you richly, and there will be rejoicing in heaven. Like the winter rains, God’s blessings will fall upon you abundantly.
Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you. (Hosea 10:12)
Christ in Scripture is listed on Feedspot Top 200 Christian Blogs.